The Breastmilk Documentary Proves What We Already Know – Breastfeeding Is Hard
I loved Dana Ben-Ari‘s documentary Breastmilk – produced by Ricki Lake – and I would recommend every pregnant woman watch it. Not because I want to convince all women to breastfeed, although I do think it is a wonderful choice if you can do it. The reason I want all pregnant women to see it is that it does an amazing job of illustrating what happens when expectations and reality collide.
When one of the movie’s first subjects, Colleen, is interviewed when she is nine months pregnant, she seems determined to breastfeed and certain she can do it. I hate to use the word “condescending,” because she ultimately has a lot of trouble breastfeeding and is forced to give it up – but in that first scene she comes off a little condescending about the whole issue: “If someone is having trouble breast-feeding, I would not want to make them feel worse about it, because they made the decision to feed from a formula, but it’s not a choice I would make for myself.” Fast-forward to the hospital, where her baby latches but her milk hasn’t fully come in: “Hopefully within a day or two my milk will come in, because that seems to be the only problem.”
It’s not the only problem. In addition to her low supply, the baby ends up having a bad latch. Colleen even goes as far as to have an ear, nose and throat specialist snip the baby’s frenulum so he can breastfeed more effectively. Again, it doesn’t work. Her husband says, “The difficulties we had with breast-feeding had the greatest toll on Colleen. She feels she let her baby down. Her efforts made it more difficult for the two of us because all of our late-night feedings I would be involved in.”
It breaks my heart to think a mother feels she hasn’t bonded enough with the baby she has done so much for simply because she couldn’t successfully breastfeed. Her child is growing beautifully on formula – her partner mentions that he is in the 90th percentile for both weight and length. We have done a horrible job tempering the benefits of breastfeeding and the information and guidance to help a women succeed, with the almost “scare tactics” of not doing it. Women who decide not to do it are seen as selfish. Women that can’t feel like they’ve failed their baby – why? Why is this happening? And why do we feel that we are somehow “better” if we decide to put ourselves through all of this?
Patrece Griffith-Murray, a community health worker, makes a poignant point about women and why they breastfeed:
Every woman has a reason why she breastfed. You can ask a woman all day, “Why are you breastfeeding?” and in my opinion she’ll tell you, “Oh, it’s good for the baby and studies show and women in England…” and she can say that. And I’m thinking, she’s lying. Why is she breastfeeding? Because there’s lots of things that are good for us – that doesn’t necessarily mean that we do them. Breastfeeding is one of those things that you have to be ridiculously competitive to do, I think. You have to be almost mean about it. You’re telling the baby, “You will breastfeed. I will do this.” There’s this certain kind of push or umph that goes with breastfeeding, that, you know, the off chance your child may not be fat when they get older is not going to do it.
She’s right. Why do we push ourselves so hard and feel like we’ve failed if we can’t do it? I struggled through months of pain with my first child because I was “determined” that he would breastfeed. Bleeding nipples, clogged ducts, endless hours of pumping – it was really hard. When my second came along, I was determined that I would not put myself through that again. I told myself that if I had trouble I would stop. She latched and fed immediately. I nursed her for 10 months. The second time mother who was willing to abandon breastfeeding immediately if it was difficult (me) loved her child just as much as the first-time mother who was hell-bent on breastfeeding her baby (me).
Ben-Ari does a thorough job of illustrating just how important it is for women in this country of all cultures and incomes to be supported through their breastfeeding trials. She is very transparent about how difficult it can be – and how hard many mothers have to work at being successful with it. This is wonderful, because women can see that it isn’t always easy and if they are having difficulties with it there is absolutely nothing wrong with them.
The only thing I would add to her commentary is the idea that if it doesn’t work – it doesn’t work. And if women don’t want to go through the trials of breastfeeding, that’s okay too.